Hills Alive With Sound of Secession

Times Staff Writer

More than a century after the Ralphs brothers bought a cattle ranch in wind-swept northern Los Angeles County, descendants of the grocery store clan are as divided as the rest of the tiny mountain community of Gorman on whether to secede from the Southland and become part of Kern County.

A branch of the Ralphs family has joined a group of newly arrived Mennonite home builders from Pennsylvania in a full-fledged revolt against what they see as anti-growth Los Angeles County. They say county services are few and far between.

“I’ve had my belly full of Los Angeles County,” said Charles “Doug” Ralphs, 59, whose grandfather was one of the original Los Angeles grocers. “The family’s been here since the 1890s, and we’ve had nothing but trouble with them.”


But another group of Ralphses is leading the opposition, claiming the secession movement is led by “Johnny-come-latelies” who want to move the county line so they can build new subdivisions in growth-friendly Kern County. They say Los Angeles County services are fine.

“Not one person on their petition is a registered voter here,” said Ruth Ralphs, 85, the widow of Charles’ brother, James L. Ralphs II. “Charles doesn’t even live here. He moved last year. And he’s not speaking for the rest of the family.”

Moving the county line about three miles south along Interstate 5 near Tejon Pass would shift about a dozen businesses, 15 homes, a small school and a sewer and water company into Kern County. Analysts say it also would cost Los Angeles County more than $1 million a year in taxes. About 1,530 acres would change counties.

To be enacted, both counties must ratify the boundary change, along with a majority of the community’s one dozen registered voters.

The effort will be tested first at a Dec. 6 hearing before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. If it is successful, several more property owners say they might try to move the county boundary even farther south to California 138.

The debate has already exposed rifts in a small town that had drifted for decades without much to argue about.

“I don’t think there’s been anything like this,” said Ruth Ralphs’ daughter, Jan Bircumshaw, an employee of the Gorman water district but a resident of nearby Frazier Park in Kern County. “I’m sitting on the middle of the fence. I can understand both points of view.”

You can blame -- or congratulate -- 31-year-old general contractor Clyde Martin for starting the debate.

Martin’s family has led a migration of Mennonites to Tehachapi Mountain communities just north of Gorman since 1998.

His father, Isaac Martin, is pastor of a 13-family Mennonite congregation that meets in a three-car garage in Lebec, a few miles north in Kern County.

It was the lack of a proper church, and real estate opportunities, that prompted the Martins to buy 80 acres on 11 parcels in Gorman two years ago from the Ralphs family. They say they have sold two commercial lots along the freeway since then, and have two more for sale, including a shuttered 14-unit motel for $495,000.

The Martins hoped to convert an old state Department of Water Resources building into a church, and sought permits from Los Angeles County. But the county had no record of the building, required the Martins to produce the state’s engineering plans and said they needed a conditional-use permit that would cost $6,000, Clyde Martin said.

“I drove to Lancaster -- a good hour’s drive -- two or three times a week for five weeks, trying to get things straightened out,” Martin said. “They said permits would take 12 to 18 months, and I said, ‘Hey, a boundary change doesn’t take that long.’ I just got frustrated.”

Martin talked with neighboring property owners about moving the Kern County boundary south, just like owners of an undeveloped 1,000 acres on the ridge above Gorman had five years ago.

Martin said he found widespread discontent with Los Angeles County services, some located in distant Santa Clarita or Lancaster.

Meanwhile, Frazier Park, only six miles from Gorman, has several satellite Kern County offices, including one to process construction projects, a library and health clinic.

“I don’t mean to bash L.A. County, but its services are so far away from Gorman,” Martin said.

The Martin Bros. company has constructed 65 houses in Kern County with little red tape or delay, Martin said. And they want to build perhaps 80 homes on 40 acres they own near Gorman School. But under Los Angeles County zoning, they can build only eight homes.

“This town needs to grow,” Martin said. “Nothing has been built here for 10 or 15 years.”

But officials at Gorman School don’t like the Martins’ idea. Although the elementary school has only 60 students, and classroom capacity for twice as many, school officials want to stay in Los Angeles County because county school services and road maintenance have been so good, said Supt. Sue Page. “The school board is very adamant,” she said.

The board comprises Ruth Ralphs, her sister-in-law Julie Ralphs and her son Steve Sonder, all local residents.

“How would you feel if you lived in the same place for 55 years, and all of the sudden some Johnny-come-latelies say they want to tear the community apart?” Ruth Ralphs asked.

“They can get a building permit in Los Angeles County if they follow the rules. I’m not opposed to growth, but I want a well-planned community like Santa Clarita. I don’t want another Frazier Park, where there’s no sidewalks, some of the streets aren’t paved and it floods when it rains.”

Sonder said 90% of local property owners are absentee, including the Martins.

A Los Angeles County analysis found that the owners of 32 of the area’s 75 parcels signed petitions in favor of the change. Martin said the number is now higher.

Interviews with several Gorman residents and business operators revealed a wide split.

On one side of Gorman Post Road, Union 76 gas station operator Bill Terlsian favors secession because sales taxes are a penny lower in Kern County, and because he would like to buy a home in the Martins’ new subdivision.

“I drive 110 miles round-trip to Chatsworth,” he said. “Sometimes I get a motel room because I’m so tired I can’t drive it.”

But across the road, local resident Emil Dabbas, manager of Gorman Mobil, said he wants the community to stay small and clean, “just the way it is.”

He said Los Angeles County services are good. A fire station is just a few miles down I-5 and a sheriff’s substation is two doors away.

“The deputy caught a thief at my house this morning,” Dabbas said. “I called the sheriff, and he was there in three minutes and caught the guy stealing a stereo from my car. If I’d called Kern County, the sheriff would have been here tomorrow because Frazier Park is too big and they don’t have enough deputies.”

The biggest taxpayer within the affected Gorman zone is the Flying J truck stop, a proponent of the change mostly because the business has a failing septic tank and wants to hook up to a Kern County sewer system, a spokesman said.

Most Los Angeles County departments have concluded that the boundary change would have little effect on them, documents show.

But county planner Daryl Koutnik said such “piecemeal” annexation could provide justification for Kern County to annex the nearby site of the proposed 23,000-dwelling Centennial development along the county line.

Then there’s the loss of about $1 million in taxes annually, including $640,000 in sales tax.

“That’s a sizable amount,” said Martin Zimmerman, who is analyzing the proposal for the county. “It would have to be [offset] by some kind of alimony payments.”

Veteran Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Gorman, hasn’t made up his mind. And aides said they would meet this week with both sides. Antonovich will focus on the economic effect and on community sentiment, said planning deputy Paul Novak.

He said the supervisor will listen carefully to Ruth Ralphs, an old friend who attended Antonovich’s first inauguration in 1980 and who regularly serves as a weathervane on community issues for the supervisor.

“We’re trying to gauge the reaction of the residents and the property owners,” Novak said. “My feeling is that it’s mixed.”